A Smart Conservative Position on War on Drugs


“Mandatory sentences breed injustice,” Judge Roger Vinson told the New York Times. A Ronald Reagan appointee to the federal bench in Florida, Vinson was railing against a federal system that forced him to sentence a 27-year-old single mother to prison life without parole because her dealer ex-boyfriend had stored cocaine in her house.

Note to D.C. Republicans: This would be a great time to take on the excesses of the war on drugs.

The Times was writing about conservatives, including Jeb Bush and former Watergate conspirator Chuck Colson, who advocate for smarter, more humane incarceration policies under the rubric “Right on Crime.” In light of the GOP’s need to woo more young voters, drug-war reforms offer an ideological good — limited government — and also might be politically savvy. Think: Ron Paul and his rock star status on college campuses.

Two areas cry for immediate action.

One: Sentencing reform. The single mother, Stephanie George, had prior drug convictions, which contributed to her draconian prison term. Even she says that she deserved to do time, but not the rest of her natural life.

What’s more, her costly incarceration won’t do anything to dry up the nation’s drug supply or scare kingpins straight. Career dealers, like George’s ex-boyfriend, who was released five years ago, know how to game the system and reduce their sentences by testifying against amateurs and patsies who think they can win at trial. As the judge explained, the guiltiest parties “get reduced sentences, while the small fry, the little workers who don’t have that information, get the mandatory sentences.”

When the federal government imprisons small-time criminals for life, the system grows too costly and too ineffective. It embodies the definition of big government. University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt found that American penal policies decreased crime in the 1990s. Since then, incarceration rates have risen so steeply that Levitt told the Times he now thinks that the prison population — more than 2 million people are in prison or jail — could be reduced by a third. If he’s even half right, Washington should act.

President Obama was critical of mandatory minimums before he was elected to the White House. But he has failed to use his presidential power to pardon as he should. Obama has commuted only one sentence to date, and right now, a commutation is George’s only hope of release.

Julie Stewart, who founded Families Against Mandatory Minimums, knows Democratic and Republican politicians who have issues with the war on drugs. Congress should not wait on the White House to enact sentencing reform; GOP members should lead the way.

Two: Marijuana. Though the Obama administration has rewarded sanctuary cities that choose to flout federal immigration law, the Obama Department of Justice has had a no-sanctuary approach to medical-marijuana dispensaries in states where voters have legalized medical use. In California, U.S. attorneys have gone to extremes, seizing assets without prosecuting dispensaries and suing landlords who aren’t even distributing the drug.

In November, Washington and Colorado voted to legalize possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., opposed the Colorado measure, but he supports the Respect States’ and Citizens’ Rights Act of 2012, which would exempt states with medical or recreational marijuana laws from the Federal Controlled Substances Act. Is Coffman ahead of Obama?

The administration has announced no policy change. Talking to ABC on Friday, Obama reiterated his 2008 view that arresting recreational users should not be a priority and said he does not support legalizing marijuana “at this point.”

Marijuana Majority’s Tom Angell is not impressed. “The federal government rarely goes after individual users,” he noted in a statement. “The real question is whether the Obama administration will try to prevent voter-approved marijuana sales systems from being enacted or if they will force individual users to buy marijuana from the black market, where much of the profits go to cartels and gangs that kill people.” And: The executive branch should reschedule marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act.

“We want to put away the bad guys,” former California GOP Assembly leader Pat Nolan, who served time in federal prison and now works for the Prison Justice Fellowship, stressed, but the federal system no longer is limited to hard time for hard crimes. Still, Nolan sees more conservative support for sentencing reform on the state level than on Capitol Hill.

It’s time for a change. Smart conservatives should fight for government that works and an end to laws that do not. Compassionate conservatives must stand against laws that are harder on small fish than career criminals. Fiscal conservatives should oppose the policies that burn dollars without promoting public safety. Constitutional conservatives should stand up for states’ rights.

And young conservatives instinctively understand this.

Email Debra J. Saunders at: dsaunders@sfchronicle.com.

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